Last October, YouTuber SsethTzeentach reviewed Freehold Games' sci-fi roguelike simulation game Caves of Qud, calling the early access title "a beautiful, wonderful, and janky mess of a game" which he had already spent more than 200 hours playing.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Freehold Games' Brian Bucklew and Jason Grinblat credit the Sseth review for providing a sales boost for the game, but also for inciting a wave of trolls that tried to review bomb the game.
While the bulk of the video's nearly 27-minute running time is clearly glowing in its assessment of the game, there's a 10-second aside about the game's Discord community banning Sseth for suggesting a sexist and homophobic gameplay mechanic and other disruptive posting. That bit ends with a challenge to the audience to do a Caves of Qud Discord ban speedrun, promising, "Beat my record and I'll buy you a pack of tendies (6 pc.)."
The video quickly received millions of views (nearly three million as of this writing), and the impact that 10-second challenge had on the game's Discord was immediate and pronounced.
As Grinblat recalls, "It was only then when a lot of the people who saw that video, these really edgelord sort of fans, came in and said, 'They have a space they're trying to moderate [in the slightest]. We're going to flood it and give them problems.'"
Rather than play whack-a-mole with people looking to be disruptive, Freehold responded by making the Caves of Qud Discord a private server, with each new member inducted individually. Predictably, that move was not universally praised.
"There's a contingent of very vocal folks that think any kind of pruning like that is just an assault against liberty," Bucklew says. "This is 1984, for us to go in and take a post from this minority of people who just want to talk about fascism or whatever alt-right thing is happening and spew whatever they want in the context of these game forums. And every game forum is infected with this. We've all seen this."
Bucklew says that before Sseth's video, Caves of Qud held a 96% Overwhelmingly Positive average review score on Steam. As of this writing, it's 95%. If it drops another 1%, it loses the Overwhelmingly Positive designation and becomes Very Positive.
"[W]hat happens when you have a no-holds-barred, open and very lenient moderation policy is you get a lot of people pushed out of your community; it just happens silently"
"Does it actually affect sales if they were to actually knock us out of overwhelmingly positive? Probably not strongly," Bucklew says. "But they make a lot of noise. This contingent of very vocal, GamerGate-rooted, alt-right troll is very loud. But if you look at the reviews, it's maybe 1% of the community, from an objective perspective. So it's really about those very loud trolls who make it their business to make people who are not a very specific gamer dude feel very uncomfortable."
Grinblat adds, "We've taken the perspective that what happens when you have a no-holds-barred, open and very lenient moderation policy is you get a lot of people pushed out of your community; it just happens silently. And it's a lot of marginalized people who are talked over, who don't feel comfortable in this space with a lot of passive-aggressive homophobia, transphobia and that sort of thing. These people end up leaving your space but you never know it because you don't get an eye onto it.
"Now that we have a space that's a little more carefully moderated, these people feel more comfortable. They feel more included. They feel like they have a space that cares about them and they can contribute to and it will contribute back. And people have a hard time understanding that our policy has caused that to flourish."
The pair say that approach has paid off tremendously in the quality of the community around the game.
"The more we leaned into it, the more powerful the results were," Bucklew says. "We started building a community that was just putting up a few small walls to this vocal 1%, and we found the community really flourished and got tons of feedback that this was an almost unique community inside of games... Our communities are great to interact with. In all of our spaces -- even the ones we don't control very tightly -- we get a lot of positive feedback that this is part of the reason why this game is appealing and they tell their friends, 'Hey come play this game.'"
It's also paid off commercially.
"Sales are enormously increased over that time," Bucklew says. "In this time that we've very visibly fended off this cohort of trolls, their stance is that, 'You're killing your sales by doing this. We're the gamers and you're keeping us out.' The reality is that our baseline sales since that time, through that whole turmoil, have more than doubled, which is extremely material to us."
If there has been any negative impact on sales, Bucklew calls it imperceivable, "a tiny amount of downward pressure on a huge positive signal."
But would catering to those upset by the closing of the Discord not provide its own sales spike among that crowd?
"Maybe you could do the same thing with this negative community -- and I think a lot of games do lean in [to that] because they're so vocal -- but it's not clear to me that they're the majority of your audience, especially when you're an indie game when you're not playing to a very mainstream audience," Bucklew says. "Even practically, it's unclear to me that you should appeal to that audience compared to everyone else who does not want to hang around with them."
Bucklew and Grinblat are clearly proud of their Discord community, though they acknowledge it wasn't the result of some master strategy on their part. When they opened it in 2018, they just did it because everyone was telling them Discord channels were something games had now.
"It grew organically and it grew out of relationships we have with people who started out as players and became friends and are active in several communities online and have a lot of experience with moderation," Grinblat says, with particular appreciation for early mods Ivy Melinda and Eva Problems.
Bucklew says there are trade-offs to having such a tightly controlled Discord. For one, the vetting process means even the sort of people they want in the community wind up having to wait for the backlog to be cleared, and the broad net they use to catch bad faith trolls might catch a few others as well.
"Usually these are probably kids or young people who just don't have context, because it's not something you think about when you're 15 for most people," Bucklew says. "They want to play a game and they don't understand why they can't get into a Discord when they can get into the Call of Duty Discord and every other Discord in the world."
For those people, Bucklew points to the Caves of Qud forums on Steam and Reddit.
"You should manage your community. Really, a lot of indie developers don't... They listen to the loudest bad faith people who say 'Let me do whatever I want.'"
"Those spaces have their own society which is different than our Discord and we moderate much more lightly in those spaces in accordance with the culture of those spaces," he says. "And you're free to spin up your own Discord or your own Reddit and we make no attempt to control discussion there."
While every game will have its own particular challenges and opportunities on the community front, Bucklew did have one generalizable bit of advice to offer other developers.
"You should manage your community," Bucklew says. "Really, a lot of indie developers don't. They look at rules like Steam's that say to be completely laissez-faire. They listen to the loudest bad faith people who say 'Let me do whatever I want.' And you should not. You should curate that space because if you don't, you're curating it away from those who are in our experience the most rewarding players to have. Those people are just going to leave your community and never come back, and you're never going to be able to get them back. It's a choice you have to make early in [your game's] life to build that community, otherwise it's going to be owned by bad faith actors.
"And they really are out there. It's a small group, but they're loud and active enough that they'll come in and trash your community. They'll throw your trash cans over, flip your tables, paint graffiti all over the wall. They'll have fun doing it, and then they'll leave and all the players will know this is not a place you should come because it's been allowed to be trashed.
"It really doesn't take much. Just have the confidence to remove the bad faith actors. You'll get slightly more negative reviews, but then more people than those who write negative reviews will show up and say 'I like to have a positive experience in my game communities and this is why I like this game.' Have the faith of your convictions in moderating your community. It'll pay off."